Magnus Carlsen (Image source)

Learning from a Prodigy

The Science Behind the Feats of the Greatest Chess Player of All Time

Magnus Carlsen is a young man like no other. This 26-year-old Norwegian is a professional chess player, and by the account of many of his peers, the best one ever.

Magnus Carlsen (Image source)

At only 13, he joined the likes of Bobby Fischer when the World Chess Federation awarded him the coveted title of Grandmaster — the highest accolade a chess player can receive. At 19, he became the youngest number 1 ranked player in the world, a record he still holds today. At 24, he achieved his peak Elo rating — 2882. This score represents the comparative strength of chess players, and it is the highest ever reached, distancing most other grandmasters by a comfortable margin. Since 2011, he has managed to maintain his number 1 world ranking despite fierce opposition. And since 2014, he has won every World Chess Championship, making him the 3 times and current World Chess Champion.

But his skills in chess aren’t limited to the competitive sphere. He also has an uncanny ability to remember games from past grandmasters — as many as 10,000 games, he claims! He has put his memory to the test on television, managing to recall not only the position of pieces but even the precise location where games were played. The young man is a walking and talking chess encyclopedia.

He also enjoys participating in exhibitions showcasing his skills. In 2013, he was invited to Harvard to compete against ten of Harvard’s best chess players. There was a catch however: his opponents would be playing the usual way, but Carlsen would be playing blindfolded — keeping track of the position of the 320 chess pieces in his mind alone. When the dust settled, Carlsen emerged victorious, having commandingly defeated his ten Harvard opponents.

Blindfolded Carlsen vs. Harvard players (Image source)

More recently in Hamburg, Germany, Carlsen faced 70 opponents simultaneously, moving from one board to the next and having to make split second decisions to beat the clock. Of his 70 opponents, only one managed to snatch a win from Carlsen when, after six hours of continuous effort, his time ran out.

Carlsen prowess is such that he has come to be known as the “Mozart of chess.” One could be tempted to see in his abilities the manifestation of a God-given talent. But although innate aptitudes may certainly have played a role, Carlsen is the first to maintain that if he’s reached the summits of international chess, it’s above all else by the sweat of his brow. In fact, he has stated that the first line of his biography would be “I am not a genius.”

This begs the question:

If Carlsen isn’t a genius, then how has he developed his abilities?

In the remainder of this story, we will attempt to answer this question by exploring some of Carlsen’s methods, as well as scientific concepts underlying them.

Chunking: Building Actionable Knowledge

Magnus Carlsen lives and breathes chess. So, when he’s not competing, he spends the better part of his time studying the game. He reads books about chess, he is coached by chess champions, he even uses computers to analyze his games in search of insights that could help him gain a competitive edge over his opponents. And of course, he watches others play. In fact, a significant part of his training involves delving into the games of past champions and inferring their thought process from the decisions they made on the chessboard.

Doing so not only allows Carlsen to broaden his understanding of the psychology of the game, it also enables him to build a vast mental library of moves, predicated on the aggregate experience of past champions. When he plays, he’s then able to conjure to mind various moves, originally from very different games, and concatenate them to form unprecedented sequences.

In neuroscience, the process that involves cementing little by little actionable bits of information into memory is called chunking. And that’s precisely what Carlsen does: he chunks chess moves. And as these chunks start building on one another, they transform into tactics; tactics that in turn become strategies; and strategies that ultimately almost always culminate in a checkmate.

Likewise, when we study a new subject, our brain tries to digest the information by converting it into mental chunks. But these chunks fade over time. In order to maintain them, we must revisit the material regularly. As the chunks are strengthened, we may space out our revision sessions further apart. With time and practice, chunks will find a permanent place in our long-term memory.

Diffuse Mode: Learning Through Reveries

In 2004, a 13-year-old Magnus Carlsen was going to face an unprecedented challenge. At the time, Carlsen was already a rising star, but he still had to receive the title of Grandmaster.

So, when in the first round of a competition held in Reykjavik, Iceland, he was paired against Garry Kasparov — the then number 1 ranked player in the world, who had been dominating international chess for over a decade — most chess enthusiasts were anticipating an overwhelming victory from Kasparov.

When the scheduled game time arrived, Carlsen was ready at the table, but Kasparov was nowhere to be found. Kasparov had earned himself a reputation of being presumptuous, even arrogant. So, unsurprisingly, when he finally arrived, he began to play without a word of apology.

But Kasparov’s confidence was soon to give place to doubt, then incredulity, as Carlsen asserted himself on the chessboard as a force to be reckoned with, despite the 27 years experience gap that separated him from Kasparov.

In the end, Kasparov managed to salvage the game by forcing a draw. However, looking back, experts agree that he was lucky to escape with this outcome, as Carlsen had gained the upper hand during the game. It’s probably only his young age that prevented him from turning this advantage into a victory. Kasparov must have known this, because after conceding the draw, he promptly left the stage with a defeated look on his face.

But besides its unexpected result, one of the most memorable aspects of this confrontation may be how differently the two opponents behaved during the game. Kasparov was intently focused on the chessboard from beginning to end, only letting surface the occasional grimace as the game turned against him. On the other hand, when waiting for his opponent to play, Carlsen would let his eyes wander across the room. He would stand up, stroll around the competition area, and even start looking at other ongoing games.

“Diffuse” Carlsen vs. “focused” Kasparov (Image source)

This could be perceived as a lack of patience on Carlsen’s part, but science suggests it may rather be one of the keys of his success. Indeed, research has shown that effective learning requires the brain to alternate between two complementary modes of operation: the focused mode and the diffuse mode.

The focused mode involves concentrating intently on the task at hand. This mode is ideal for absorbing new information and kick-starting the chunking process. It is the mode students engage, or at least should engage, when they study a new subject.

The diffuse mode, on the contrary, involves relaxing the mind. We switch to this mode when we mentally walk away from any specific focus and instead let our thoughts wander. Sleeping or going for a stroll are prime examples of diffuse-thinking activities. It may seem counterintuitive to imagine that this type of mental state could contribute to the learning process, but as it turns out, it is an essential ingredient.

Relaxing our mind allows our subconscious to emerge and seize control of our thought process. Our subconscious then gets hard at work strengthening existing mental chunks but also building bridges between disconnected chunks. Hence, diffuse thinking bolsters creativity and acts as a catalyst for lateral thinking. It explains why we sometimes go to bed scratching our heads about a difficult problem and wake up the next morning having found the solution. During the night our subconscious continued mulling over the problem, slowly internalizing it, and traversing our mental library of chunks in search of anchor points that may shed light on the solution.

So, when Carlsen decides to go for a stroll in the middle of a chess game — diverting his attention away from the game and switching on his diffuse mode of thinking — he is effectively enlisting the help of his subconscious to beat his opponent. The creativity enabled by separate groups of neurons firing together allows Carlsen to build combinations of moves that venture off the beaten track of conventional chess and can make all the difference between a victory and a defeat.

Magnus Carlsen has offered advice on how chess players may improve their game.

Deliberate Practice: Kick-Starting our Brain

Carlsen encourages players to constantly challenge themselves. We should play against good opponents, even when we know the odds are against us. There is often more to learn from a loss than a win. Facing strong opponents will force us out of our comfort zone. And leaving our comfort zone is a necessity if we want to improve our game. We should not only accept this type of confrontations when they present themselves but actively seek them.

This piece of advice ties into a learning technique called “deliberate practice,” which involves tackling the more difficult tasks first, because these can act as lightning bolts shocking the brain into activity and priming it for the work ahead. It also helps overcome potential tendencies to procrastinate, since after having handled the harder tasks, the easier ones may seem more inviting.

Chess is a discipline that requires rigor and consistency, much like studying. Hence, techniques that help focus and stay on track should be a welcome addition to the mental toolkit of both chess players and students.

Interleaving: Switching It Up

Carlsen encourages players to vary the conditions of the game. Play competitively and play for fun. Play online and play face-to-face. Play against people of different origins and with different playstyles. Simply put, seek diversity in chess.

Indeed, there are unsuspected benefits to diversity. In team dynamics for example, studies have shown that an inclusive environment can bolster synergy and team cohesion. Scientists posit that this effect is the result of people’s background shaping their mindsets. Hence, a diversity of backgrounds translates into a diversity of mindsets. And different mindsets can allow a team to approach problems from different perspectives that complement each other and support effective and efficient teamwork.

Similarly, introducing diversity in our study sessions can also make our learning more productive. The way to achieve this is by switching every so often our study subject. We may study math for an hour or two in the morning then switch to chemistry. Get a good meal and continue studying math in the afternoon. And end with a chemistry study session before going to bed. Doing so will prove much more effective than spending an entire day studying a single subject.

This approach to learning is called “interleaving”, since it involves deliberately alternating different study subjects. Interleaving reinvigorates the thought process and prevents our mind from switching to autopilot.

In addition, interleaving takes advantage of our diffuse mode of thinking. The subject studied first is loaded in our memory, and when we switch our attention to a second study subject, our subconscious mind continues to work in the background on the first subject. When we later come back to this first subject, we may be surprised to discover that we understand it better. This technique is particularly useful if we find ourselves struggling to understand a concept. We should switch our attention to a different topic for some time, then revisit the challenging concept. Things may suddenly fall into place.

Transfer: Solving Parallel Problems

Carlsen encourages chess player to not just play chess but also try their hand at various puzzles. Riddles, video game puzzles, memory games, all contribute to mental acuity and, in particular, to develop analytical and problem solving skills. While solving puzzles, we may uncover concealed insights that can lend access to new perspectives on the game of chess and allow us to enrich our playstyle.

This effect is known as “transfer”: what is learned in one area can often be applied to other different areas, sometimes with no apparent connection. For example, research has shown that playing fast-paced videos games can improve the performance of surgeons operating on patients. And learning one language often facilitates learning others. As we add new chunks to our mental library, our subconscious mind can tap into these chunks to understand new concepts, gain a deeper understanding of previously learned concepts, and find solutions to problems.

Health: Building on Solid Foundations

If our decisions are the product of cogs turning in our brain, it is obviously essential for chess players to maintain a well-oiled mental machinery. To that end, Carlsen encourages players to keep a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising regularly, and sleeping a lot.

Carlsen has mentioned sleeping up to 16 hours prior to important events. We should remember that sleep lets our subconscious resurface and unlock potentials that aren’t accessible to our conscious mind. Furthermore, sleep is essential to be able to reason effectively, because as our brain functions, it produces toxins that slow down cognition. During sleep, these toxins are eliminated and the brain is reinvigorated.

Carlsen also encourages players to exercise regularly. He is himself a fan of soccer, which he continues to play in between trips. But even when he’s on the move, he works out in the hotel gyms to remain in good physical shape. In addition to being mentally taxing, chess tournaments are not easy on the body. Important events often span over several days and involve playing numerous games that can each last for hours. Training allows Carlsen to build up the stamina required to maintain a top level of performance during long events. But sport also has mental benefits. It releases endorphins in the bloodstream that contribute to a positive mental state, minimize fatigue, and decrease the risk of blunders.

Finally, Carlsen encourages players to follow a healthy diet. What we eat is what our body uses to regenerate itself. A high-functioning brain requires a delicate chemical balance. This balance is achieved among others by ensuring that our body receives all the nutrients it requires, in appropriate quantities. A good diet can allow us to reach that ideal chemical balance and afford us a competitive edge over our adversaries.

So, Magnus Carlsen may not be a young man like the others, and we may never fully understand the origins of his talent, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t benefit from using his techniques. Science has already shed light on some of those techniques, and it is up to each and everyone of us to adopt them, whether it’d be to increase our chances on the chessboard or to ace the upcoming math exam.

Story written for the final honors assignment of the course “Learning How to Learn” —offered by the University of California, San Diego, on Coursera, and taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski.